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10 Tips on How to Read Philosophy

July 7, 2015


The eminent philosopher and author, Dr. Mortimer Adler, stated:

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

It is therefore no surprise that Adler published the very helpful and widely-published work, How To Read A Book.

In this great book, Adler devotes a chapter to the topic, “How To Read Philosophy.” Based on this chapter, here are some suggestions on how to read philosophy effectively:

1. Discover what questions(s) the work is trying to answer. Adler emphasizes the importance of this first step:

“The most important thing to discover in reading any philosophical work is the question or questions it tries to answer.” (p. 285)

2. Read with childlike inquisitiveness. Adler writes:

“Philosophy, according to Aristotle, begins in wonder. It certainly begins in childhood, even if for most of us it stops there, too.” (p. 270)

The child is a natural questioner, says Adler:

“Children’s questions are not limited to the sort that can be answered by an encyclopedia.” (p. 270)

In other words, contrary to an adult mind, a child is much more willing to ask the why questions (why do miracles happen?), in addition to the “whether something is so” questions (do miracles happen?). “One of the most remarkable things about great philosophical books”, writes Adler, “is that they ask the same sort of profound questions that children ask”.

The bottom line is—we must ask good, thoughtful questions to be good readers of philosophy:

“A mind not agitated by good questions cannot appreciate the significance of even the best answers.” (p. 270)

3. Begin with philosophy that tackles first-order questions. In other words, it is best to read books by thinkers who have written about what is and what ought tobe. It is most profitable and practical to think about questions of reality and morality (first-order questions), rather than to think about questions about thinking (second-order questions).

Adler notes that books written to answer first order questions (books by Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc.) are commonly written for the lay reader and are must more accessible than more modern philosophy.

4. Know that philosophical questions are answered differently than scientific or historical questions. Scientists conduct research—they hypothesize, test, measure, and observe. Historians also conduct research by investigating authorship, dating, localization of sources and testing the validity of recorded testimony. The scientific and historical methods, though different, are methods of research. Conversely however, the philosophical method, as Adler points out, is not so. Put simply, the philosophical method consists of reflecting and reasoning:

“There is no experiment that will tell you what all existing things have in common….There are no special kinds of  phenomena that you can observe, no documents that you can seek out and read, in order to find out what change is or why things change [emphasis added].” (p. 277)

Adler continues:

“All you can do is reflect upon the question. There is, in short, nothing to do but think.” (p. 277)

Finally, once you’ve reflected and reasoned towards a conclusion—you can test your conclusion:

“There are stringent tests of the validity of answers to  philosophical questions. But such tests are based on common experience alone—on the experience that you already have because you are a human being…” (p. 278)

5. Be aware of questions that are not philosophical questions. Adler writes:

“We must also realize that not all of the questions that philosophers have asked and tried to answer are truly philosophical. They themselves were not always aware of this…” (p. 278)

Some questions were—at one time—not clearly understood to be scientific questions, such as questions regarding the physical universe (stars, etc).

This is a more historical sort of error that today’s philosophers are much less likely to commit (trying to answer scientific questions with philosophy). Ironically, many of today’s scientists—particularly those who subscribe to an atheistic worldview—erroneously attempt to answer philosophical questions with science alone, such as questions of objective morality or God’s existence.

6. Diversify your reading among the various philosophical styles.

The Dialogue is written in the form of a dialogue (like the script of a play) and is, thus, “conversational if not colloquial”. Adler affirms the noteworthy effectiveness of this style.

The Treatise is the style utilized famously by Aristotle or Kant. Adler notes that in these treatises, although the element of drama is missing, “a philosophical view is developed through straightforward exposition rather than through the conflict of positions and opinions, as in Plato”.

The Meeting Of Objections is that style “perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas”. In this style, a question is posed, a wrong answer is given which is then countered by an authoritative test (commonly Scripture). Next, as in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, the philosopher introduces his own answer to the originally posed question, and finally, replies are given to the wrong answers (objections). This style is, Adler enthusiastically notes, “imbued with the spirit of debate and discussion”.

The Systematization of Philosophy, developed by Descartes and Spinoza, has a sort of “mathematical dress”. It is not, in Adler’s opinion, an overly effective style of conveying philosophical reasoning clearly.

The Aphoristic Style, adopted by Nietzsche, is a style more appreciated by the “poetically inclined” due to its short statements and “hit and run” style. Adler writes, ” [The author] touches on a subject, he suggests a truth or insight about it, and then runs off to another subject without properly defending what he has said”. This type of style can be enjoyable to read but “irritating for the serious philosopher who would rather try to follow and criticize an author’s line of thought”.

7. Identify any hidden or unstated assumptions of the author. Is the author an atheist? Has he defined his terms and made appropriate distinctions? Does he believe in natural law? How has he interpreted the conclusions of other philosophers? Answers to such questions should be stated clearly:

“These [assumptions] are easy enough to see if he states them in the book you are reading. But he may not have done so, reserving their treatment for another book. Or he may never treat them explicitly, but instead allow them to pervade every one of his works.” (p. 286)

However, Adler points out that unstated assumptions is not always a problem in every work:

“The great philosophers cannot be charged with having tried to hide their assumptions dishonestly, or with having been unclear in their definitions and postulations. It is precisely the mark of a great philosopher that he makes these things clearer than other writers can.”

Nonetheless, you must follow the philosopher’s arguments and ensure that the line of thinking remains consistent with the first principles stated (to train yourself to have a keen eye for logical errors get Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic):

“There is no doubt…that inconsistency in a philosopher is a serious problem.” (p. 288)

8. It is not essential to read biographies or commentaries on the philosophers you are reading. This is not necessarily essential, nor an ideal use of your limited time, according to Adler. He writes:

“Despite the difficulty of discovering these controlling principles [assumptions] , however, we do not recommend that you take the shortcut of reading books about the philosophers, their lives and opinions. The discovery you come to on your own will be much more valuable than someone else’s ideas.” (p. 288)

In other words: Read philosophy with your first intention to think, not to memorize.

“[The philosopher] refers you to your own common sense and daily observation of the world in which you live…Your responsibility is only to make up your mind.” (p. 290-291)

Your responsibility (and the chief aim of reading philosophy) is to “make up your own mind”; to think for yourself; to be a filter rather than a sponge.

9. Define philosophical terms used by the author. Movement, essential, potential, actual, substance, accident, being, etc are all words we might use in everyday language. But when reading philosophy, these common words may be used in a less familiar, special sense.

The reader of philosophy must, therefore, discover what the philosopher means by his terms:

“The words that express his terms are usually taken from common speech, but used in a very special sense. This demands special care from the reader. If he does not overcome the tendency to familiar words in a familiar way, he will probably make gibberish and nonsense of the book.” (p. 289)

In this case, it is the reader who must clear up his assumptions about terminology.

10. Make up your own mind. I’ve already made this point but I think it should be made again as our final point.

“Your responsibility is to make up your own mind…Taking the opinions of others is not solving them, but evading them. And your answers must be solidly grounded, with arguments to back them up.” (p. 291)

Think for yourself” does not mean “create your own truth”. As Adler says—your answers to philosophical questions must be solidly grounded, with arguments to back them up”.

Final Thoughts

Reading good philosophy is, in my opinion, essential to the realization of our Christian potential. We cannot avoid philosophy—both as something we encounter and as something we do—because of our essentially human “love of wisdom” and our infused desire for truth (when was the last time you woke up wishing for a day full of lies and deceit?).

Reading philosophy is not always fun—and it is hard work. As G.K. Chesterton wrote:

“Philosophy is merely thought that has been thought out. It is often a great bore. But man has no alternative, except between being influenced by thought that has been thought out and being influenced by thought that has not been thought out. The latter is what we commonly call culture and enlightenment today. But man is always influenced by thought of some kind, his own or somebody else’s… A man does test everything by something. The question here is whether he has ever tested the test.” (“The Revival Of Philosophy – Why?“)

I think Adler and Chesterton—two great philosophers of the 20th century—would have been great friends. The intellects of both men thrived on good books and good reason—and the blissfully intoxicating pleasure of truth that came from both.

Both men were soldiers for reality, and their minds were their most formidable weapon; and yet their minds were only great and formidable because they were able to make them small and simple, like a child’s, in order to ask the most fundamental questions. Dr. Mortimer Adler closes his chapter on “How To Read Philosophy” with this statement:

“The questions philosophers ask are simply more important than the questions asked by anyone else. Except children.” (p. 291)